‘I am trying to be the voice that makes people go down [to the streets] to stand against Sisi. If all of them went, there would be no risk to life, no one would be hurt.’
Mohamed Ali infuriates Field Marshal President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt. His waspish, cruel, outrageously funny, solemnly pedantic videos and social media messages transmitted from his self-exile in Spain, mocking the man who overthrew Egypt’s first elected president, even brought demonstrators back onto the streets of Cairo in September. But the 45-year-old actor and businessman Mohamed Ali admits to me, after much false modesty, that he would like to play Sisi – if only for just one day.
And if his description of the president – corrupt and corrupting, leading a nepotistic clan of army officers – is anything like the truth, then I have a suspicion that Sisi might like to play Ali for a day too. For the iconoclast who chain smokes his way through his video rants, demanding back pay for the massive army palace he claims to have constructed for Sisi, might be a satisfying role for a man who claims not only to be uncorrupted by power but to have saved Egypt from Islamic “terror”. Sisi calls all of Ali’s allegations “lies”.
Ali is certainly no humble Egyptian hero; the actor – most of his earlier movies were duds, including one on which he spent more than £1m – now has a mass audience. And he claims and repeats ad nauseam is that all he wants is his back pay. He doesn’t demand goodness, or apologies, or want to play the part of an Egyptian ready to forgive his persecutor (a common theme of Cairo movies). As Egyptian cinema writer Leila Arman put it, the actor has turned his argument with Sisi into a fight over cash: “Give me my money”. And for 15 years, he worked as a military contractor in Egypt.
But the moment you talk to Ali, you can see why he’s so popular.
“I was a businessman, then I was an actor,” he tells me over the phone. “I have enough money to make movies, to travel across Europe. I use only a mobile phone for my videos and a packet of cigarettes. I’ve always been a wealthy man. I am trying to be the voice that makes people go down [to the streets] to stand against Sisi. If all of them went, there would be no risk to life, no one would be hurt.”
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